As S.K. noted in her last blog post…it’s been a crazy end to the old year and an even crazier start to the new year for us around here. Apologies for being MIA…
At any rate, today I want to talk about something I’ve said I want to talk about many times in the past — the habit of writing vivid prose. Now, to approach this topic properly, we first need to distinguish vivid prose from amethystine cabochons of literary splendor. Yes. We want to know what makes prose purple, and what makes it perfect.
So, in this post, I will give a brief overview of purpleness in prose. Next time I’ll talk about real ways to bring your prose to life.
Purple prose, in case you aren’t quite clear on the meaning, is the habit of emblazoning the folia of your illustrious manuscript with ostentatious expressions of literary genius. I.e., it means overwriting everything. It means looking up every adjective, every verb, every noun in the thesaurus and pinpointing the one that sounds the most snobbishly pretentious and erudite, on the assumption that it will make your prose more “sophisticated.” It doesn’t. It makes it sound ridiculous.
Besides, you run the risk of using a word that has entirely the wrong meaning for what you’re trying to convey — but because it’s listed as a synonym for the word you should have used, you assumed it has the same connotation. It may not. And someone who actually knows the meaning of the word is just going to laugh at you for being a rube. Sorry, but it’s the cold hard truth.
Imagine that I wanted to describe a character as chubby. So I look up “chubby” in the thesaurus and go through and…hmm, brawny is a great word! Yes, it’s listed as a synonym with chubby under the word, “fleshy.” So, without doing a double-check on my chosen word, I plop it into my sentence: “The brawny little woman with small round eyes…” Um. No. That would not be the image I’m trying to convey.
Besides the risk of sounding like an idiot, purple prose can actually defeat the purpose of good writing. I read a story once where the author used that word I used earlier — cabochon — to describe tears. Okay, is cabochon a good word in a sense to describe a teardrop? Maybe, in this way: a cabochon is a gemstone that has been polished into a smooth shape, rather than being faceted. Okay, a teardrop isn’t exactly faceted, so, yeah. Technically, you could describe a teardrop as a cabochon. Now, does that make it good fiction writing?
Why not? Well, when you’re writing about a deep emotion, like grief or mourning, over-describing can actually work against you. It puts up barriers between the reader and the character. It makes the reader pay attention to the prose, rather than what the prose is saying. So, instead of feeling the character’s grief, the reader sits back and wonders, “What the heck is a cabochon?” NOT the effect you want.
Purple prose is notorious for distancing the reader from the story. Using a great vocabulary is one thing. Using inappropriately grandiose vocabulary is something else entirely.
One final note. A writer might think purple prose makes them sound smart, but readers are actually quite adept at detecting pseudo-intellectual fluff. They can smell purple prose a mile away. If they get even the slightest whiff of a sense that you’re using words you don’t really understand just to make your prose sound loftier, you will not see the end of their ridicule.
Writers ye be warned.